Part 2: Optimizing Recovery

Bodybuilder Clarence Bass, now age 69, once speculated that if athletes could get stronger indefinitely, weight-lifters who trained hard for years would eventually be able to lift apartment houses.

Clarence used this wacky logic to illustrate the cyclical nature of training. We train hard to achieve peak fitness — then the body needs rest. The cycles are small and large: weekly, monthly, yearly. We train to a peak one season, and the following year we repeat the cycle, hoping to achieve a slightly higher peak. As we get older, the peaks get lower, no matter how hard we train.

(Seeing these photos of Clarence over the years, we wonder if he might at least be able to lift a small condo.)

Feeble humor aside, it’s clear that continuous, endless progress isn’t possible. The best we can do is move toward our own potential, given our age and DNA. Where your 10K potential may be 39:00 and mine might be 42:00, Kenenisa Bekele’s — so far — is 26:17.53. Exercise physiologists agree that biodynamics and V02Max are inherited, and cannot be improved by training.

If that strikes you as depressing, it shouldn’t. Achieving your own PRs is what will give you the greatest satisfaction and joy. Pretending that our bodies are different than they are is a recipe for frustration. The best satisfactions of running come from accepting ourselves as we are and working to be our own best.

That much said, what’s the quickest way to achieve your potential?

Training 101: “Running plus rest equals progress.”

Training is about balance. We must balance hard with easy, effort and rest. We see this pattern in nature: winter-summer, flood-ebb, wave-trough, day-night, heat-cold, sap rising and falling, journey and return.

Good training acknowledges these outward and inward cycles. You could almost say it celebrates them. On the other hand, bad training ignores them.

The difference between you and me and the world-dominating Kenyans and Ethiopians is that their talented bodies allow them to train extremely hard, then recover quickly. They experience the same hard/easy cycles, but at a higher level of energy and intensity.

Very occasionally, we’ll find a world-class runner balancing extremely hard training with surprisingly easy recovery runs. Here are some typical workouts from the training diary of Noureddine Morceli, the former world 1500m record holder:

90-minute run at 6:20 pace
65 minutes fast at 5:10 pace
60 minutes very, very easy — as slow as 10-minute pace
12 x 400m in 55 sec with 40 sec recovery jog
Fartlek run with easy striding on soft, grassy surface

But this is rare. (See, for example, the uniformly hard training of Hicham El Guerrouj. Let’s face it, the “recovery runs” of most champions would destroy the average plodder. Frank Shorter did 70-80 percent of his training (98-112 miles!) at a relaxed, easy recovery pace of “just” 7 minutes per mile.

Training that violates the hard-easy principle is doomed. Just as good training produces expansive feelings of health, well-being, and inner contentment — unbalanced (bad) training produces the opposite: loss of energy, resulting in contractive experiences of irritability, illness, regressing fitness, and general fatigue.

As you might guess, the most unbalanced, contractive, unhappy thing a runner can do is to overtrain. And you’ll surely overtrain if you aren’t allowing your body to recover.

How can you know if your body is fully recovered? Here’s an excerpt from an interview on Nike’s website with Bob Kennedy, the only American ever to run 5000 meters in under 13 minutes:

What about the idea of pushing oneself in a good way, versus pushing too far. How do you tell the difference between challenging yourself and going overboard?

Bob Kennedy: You have to really pay attention to your body, not only physically, but mentally and emotionally. As soon as you start not enjoying what you’re doing — or start really struggling and go for a run and think “what am I doing out here” — if that starts becoming the norm, then you’re pushing too hard and something’s not right. You know, back off, take a rest, or reorganize yourself. But if you’re pushing hard and doing some speed and some longer runs, and you’re really fired up about it, and you’re giving yourself some recovery time, then you know you’re pushing yourself in a good way.1

The key to staying in balance is simple: watch how you feel — and be ruthlessly honest about it.

Recovery Tricks?
Are there any tricks to make the body recover faster? Actually — there are. The key is: if it’s expansive — that is, if it increases your feelings of health, strength, and joy — you can be pretty sure that it’s helping you recover. Obvious things like eating well and getting enough sleep fall in this category.

Eating well is important. When I interviewed seven-time Western States 100 winner and course record holder Scott Jurek for the March 2007 issue of Trail Runner magazine, I couldn’t resist asking about his diet, even though it was off the main topic, strength training for the trails.

It’s widely known that Scott is vegan — that is, he eats no meat, fish, or dairy. But his approach to diet is imbued with common sense. He readily concedes, for example, that some runners can’t thrive on a pure vegan diet, because their systems are too strongly conditioned to eating dairy products and/or meat.

When I asked how eating ;ldquo;close to nature;rdquo; helped his running, he said that it probably didn’t make a lot of difference in races, but it allowed him to recover more quickly, and therefore to train harder than runners who are less careful what they eat.

More on diet later.

Recovery While You Run
What we do while we’re running can have a major effect on our recovery.

For years, I did ultra-style training run/walks of 6-7 hours, fueled with plain water and electrolytes. That’s right: no carbs whatever, unless the course was hilly, and then I’d take just one bite per hour of a high-protein energy bar.

The runs were enjoyable, but the recovery was brutal — it took 4-5 days before I began to feel even minimally human again. In time, I learned that long, carb-free training increases the body’s output of cortisol, a stress and aging hormone. Karl King, a professor at the University of Minnesota and a fellow ultrarunner, told me that all of the runners he’d met who trained on plain water looked older than their years.

The lesson? Start recovering while you run, by following the standard directions for fueling: take 100-200 calories per hour of your favorite energy drink or gel during long runs, and consume additional carbs within 15-30 minutes after the run, then have a high-protein meal or snack 2-3 hours later. Get adequate water while running, and don’t neglect your electrolytes. (Scott Jurek praised the Clifshot gels, which contain carbs from slow-burning, natural rice syrup.)

A good place to learn more about fueling is Hammer Nutrition’s resource center, especially the Endurance Library.

After the Run
I find that Hammer Nutrition’s Recoverite product substantially aids my recovery. You can order it from ZombieRunner. I have no financial or other interest in Hammer, but I am favorably disposed toward ZombieRunner, because Don and Gillian are wonderful people.

After a long effort, I like to eat as “purely” as possible. Where I would formerly celebrate a 20-miler with a pint of ice cream, I’m now more inclined to eat an Organic Food Bar. Made with mostly raw ingredients, they’re a healthy recovery treat — and excellent road fuel for long, ultra-style training runs where solid fuel is okay. I discovered these bars from the logo on Scott Jurek’s singlet in a photograph taken at Western States. (Scott is no longer sponsored by the company.)

General Diet/Weight-Loss
I’ve been lacto-vegetarian since 1967, but I limit dairy to the times when it counts — and one of those is following a long run. My favorite meal 2-3 hours post-run is two-thirds of a quarter of buttermilk with a handful of deglet noor dates. The only foods that can sustain life alone are milk and eggs, and buttermilk seems to give my body exactly what it needs — it’s very satisfying. I’m dairy-intolerant — regular milk bloats me like you wouldn’t believe, but buttermilk seems to work fine.

In arranging my diet, I visualize several food categories. Not the USDA’s Food Pyramid — I formulated my own, personal food scheme with help from Eat to Live, a wonderfully readable book on diet and weight-loss by former USA figure skater Joel Fuhrman, MD.

Fuhrman discovered that people who eat large amounts of high-nutrition, low-calorie foods (non-starchy vegetables, fruit, beans, and nuts) enjoy exceptional health and lose weight rapidly and permanently.

It works. During my first six weeks on the diet, the weight poured off — I lost 20+ pounds and felt great, except for a brief period when I ate too few carbs while training hard.

The keystone of the diet is salad &#8212 you can eat as much as you like; and the same goes for beans and fruit. I ate tons of fruit, while losing weight steadily — it takes eight oranges to replenish the calories expended in a 10-mile run. I actually became carb-depleted while gorging on fruit and running 30-40 miles per week. I had to start eating dates, figs, or small amounts of rice or potatoes to keep my carb motor fueled. If I don’t eat salad for several days, I notice a difference in my recovery.

Happily, Fuhrman is not a fanatic. Though he believes a vegan diet is healthiest, he recognizes that it’s a big stretch for most people. After a first, strict six-week weight-loss phase, he says it’s okay to “cheat” 10 percent of the time, and to adjust consumption of meat, dairy and carbs to individual needs.

If you’re inclined to investigate Eat to Live, I recommend getting the full details and impressing them on your mind by reading the book.

In my mind, I visualize the food groups by amount: tons of salad and fruit are okay, as are moderate amounts of beans, cooked veggies, and nuts. These are all good foods for maintaining health. The other food groups — starchy carbs, dried fruit, and dairy — I think of as &ldquo:as-needed” items. I eat smaller amounts of potatoes or dates to maintain energy on off days, and more on days when I run. I drink buttermilk only after I’ve exercised hard, worked hard in the garden, or when my body seems to be crying for it.

That raises a point: how can you know what your body needs? I discuss this at length in Fitness Intuition, but it doesn’t hurt to repeat the basic principle here. Overly rigid diets or training plans are counter-productive. The basic diet or training schedule may be good, exactly what you need most days, but there will invariably be days when your body wants to do something completely different than the training schedule or diet demands.

At such times, it’s a good idea to introspect carefully. Don’t rush to eat the first thing that comes to mind, especially if it’s charged with emotion. (Ice cream!) Set it aside and check a deeper level, where the feeling is calm, objective, and detached from excited feelings. Very often, you’ll know what your body wants — it may surprise you when you “hear” an unusual suggestion that proves deeply satisfying when you go ahead and eat the food recommended by your intuition.

In general, on any diet, I find it extremely helpful to write out lists of all the delicious things I can eat, rather than concentrating on what I can’t. It’s a much more positive, expansive way of approaching a diet. It’s the difference between saying “Oh gosh, I can’t eat butter!” versus: “I can make a wonderful salad with Romaine, spinach, kale broccoli, olives, beans, and bok choi. And I’ll make a dressing with an organic orange, a tablespoon of raw almond butter, and some Bragg’s and Dijon mustard.” It only works if I take the time to write out the list; trying to hold separate lists of “can” and “can’t” foods in my mind never works. Writing out the lists brings a special clarity and commitment.

What if you can’t tolerate uncooked vegetables? The ancient Indian dietary art called Ayurveda describes three body types, each of which thrives on a somewhat different collection of foods. “Kapha” types are social, large-limbed, with good endurance; they thrive on a “heating” diet that includes well-spiced foods and reasonable amounts of caffeine, etc. They tolerate salads well.

“Vata” types get cold easily, have quick minds, prefer to run shorter distances, and thrive on a “heating” diet, but can’t tolerate raw veggies. They’d have trouble on the Eat to Live diet; fortunately, they’re rarely overweight. The “Pitta” types need “cooling” foods — they thrive on salads and fruit.

For more information on vegan diet for runners, see Brendan Brazier’s website. Brendan is a top Canadian professional triathlete and ultrarunner (he won the 2006 Canadian 50K championship).

I’ll add to this article as I discover new ways to speed recovery.

1Downloaded from Nike’s Web site on July 1, 2005 at 12:22 PDT.